Lawmaker wants to limit Arizona's authority over imperiled Mexican gray wolves

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted on March 6, 2022 by Lindsey Botts

The Arizona House has passed a bill that would strip state wildlife officials of the authority to stop the killing of Mexican gray wolves in certain circumstances. The bill is now in the Senate, where conservation organizations say its prospects are good.

House Bill 2181 bars the state Game and Fish Commission from prohibiting a person from killing a wolf if the person feels threatened or if their livestock or pets are threatened. The bill doesn’t explicitly say that only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal wildlife management agency, can set rules for killing Mexican wolves, but that would be the result if it became law.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who authored the bill, said he wants ranchers to have more autonomy and would like the state to follow federal guidelines.

The bill's opponents say the state already follows those rules and that setting limits on killing Mexican wolves is something state regulators haven’t tried to do. Adding to the confusion, Cook said the law would stay in place if and when Mexican wolves are delisted and management returns to the state.

"I don't want some rogue state agency or anybody else to come out and say, ‘Well, Fish and Wildlife Service says A, B and C. Well, we’re going to make you do D, E, F, G,’" Cook said. "We want the experts and the ones that are in charge, which is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to come out and say, ‘Here's what needs to be done' and that’s what everyone needs to focus on.”

Bill's opponents foresee more confusion
Wolf advocates say the bill is problematic for two major reasons. First, since Mexican wolves are federally listed as a protected species, there is no question that management authority lies with federal officials. Setting provisions for the killing of the species is something that is already outside of the state agency's purview.

“The department follows all legislation that impacts wildlife and wildlife management …,” said Jim DeVos, the Mexican wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The bill would do nothing to actually change current wolf management. According to the Endangered Species Act, any person may take (which means killing as well as nonlethal actions, such as harassing or harming) a Mexican wolf in self-defense or defense of the lives of others.

Sandy Bahr is the state director for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. Her group, along with other conservation groups, opposes the bill. A coalition of organizations, which includes the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the White Mountain Conservation League, sent a letter urging representatives and senators to reject the bill. Bahr says at the very least, the duplicative nature of the bill causes confusion among the public.

"Whenever it sounds like the government is sanctioning the killing of wolves, which is kind of what this is, then there's concern that that might encourage more of it," Bahr said. “I think that it shows that, at least, the majority at the Arizona Legislature are not supportive of ecosystem health and recovery of threatened and endangered plants and animals.”

Critics point to a slew of anti-wolf bills and laws that have come out of the Legislature, including a bill that would bar the introduction of wolves to Arizona and New Mexico, another that required AZGFD to kill any wolf threatening livestock, and another that would have given $250,000 to the state for litigation fees related to wolf lawsuits.

Since 1998, when Mexican wolf recovery began, over 100 wolves have been illegally killed, even though they are a protected species. In January, wolf m2520, a Mexican wolf that a group of schoolchildren named Anubis, was killed north of Williams. The incident is currently being investigated by USFWS.

More recently, along the southern border, a male wolf known as Mr. Goodbar was illegally shot. While his wounds weren’t fatal, the injury resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. Noting the damage that poaching poses to Mexican wolf recovery, an October court order directed USFWS to do more to prevent the illegal killing of the imperiled species.

State regulators could lose management tools
Conservationists say Cook's bill could potentially do the opposite, which is the second issue they have with the measure. If USFWS were to delist Mexican wolves, management would fall back to the state. If it does, and if this bill were to become law, state wildlife managers could not set limits on killing Mexican wolves, taking away an essential element of wildlife management.

"Even though Mexican gray wolves are far from being delisted, it's the kind of thing that would kick in if they were delisted," Bahr said. "And therefore, the Game and Fish Commission, which is supposed to be the entity that manages wildlife, would be constrained."

Bryan Bird, the Southwest director at Defenders of Wildlife, said Arizonans have put their faith in the state wildlife agency to set the parameters for wildlife management. Changes in those parameters by the state Legislature could take that ability away.

Bahr adds that the clandestine way in which the bill was brought to the House floor also raises suspicion over the validity of its ostensibly benign intent. It was passed through the Land, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee as a strike-everything amendment, which usually guts existing bills and then reworks it into something different.

"It's ... frequently done to promote controversial bills," Bahr said of strike-through amendments. Lawmakers "introduce these bills that are referred to as 'vehicle bills' and that means the only reason the bill was introduced is to have a vehicle to do one of these strike-everything amendments. So there was no reason for this bill, other than to strike it for another bill."

When the bill went to the House floor, eight Democrats surprised conservationists when they joined 28 Republicans in voting to pass the bill.

Those eight representatives included Reps. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Avondale, Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, Myron Tsosie, D-Chinle, Andres Cano, D-Tucson, and Robert Meza, D-Phoenix. In the minority committee meeting for the bill, Sierra said he was unable to attend one of the hearings about the bill. He still voted yes on it.

“When evaluating my vote on 2181, one factor I took into consideration was that I learned that tribal nations had expressed support for the bill,” Sierra told The Arizona Republic.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe's reservation is situated in the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler wrote a letter to representatives, in the House and Senate, urging them to vote “yes” on the bill due to the perceived effect wolves might have on tribal cattle herds.

"Even with its delisting, pursuant to Section 10(j) of the Act, the USFWS has designated a segment of this wolf’s population as experimental so as to release it beyond its current range to further conservation efforts, and treating the experimental population as 'threatened.' Yet, this wolf is responsible for historic damage to the Tribe’s livestock, and lost revenues," reads the letter.

USFWS has not committed to releasing Mexican wolves beyond the designated population area. Instead, the agency has been adamant about sticking to boundaries, going so far as removing wolves that venture north of Interstate 40, the northern border of the experimental population area, and retuning them south of the interstate.

Furthermore, the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team released a document earlier this year stating that no releases of adult wolves would occur in 2022 and that they would remove wolves on tribal land.

Finding ways for wolves to coexist
Instead of putting forth anti-wolf laws that encourage killing and extermination, Bahr and Bird said state lawmakers should try to promote ways of coexisting and living with wolves on the landscape.

"I would like to see the state step up and be a better partner in helping livestock producers be successful with the presence of wolves on the land," Bird told The Republic. "That means funding scientifically proven, coexistence techniques. I think there are things the state can be doing besides sending out this very negative let's-just-kill-the-animal kind of message rather than let's try to figure out a way to live with the animal."

Bird's organization works directly with ranchers across the region to provide strategies that have shown promise in the effort to live with wolves. Such measures include ranger riders, who provide on-the-ground defense to cattle herds; the use of fladry, which are stripes of tape hung on fencing that discourage wolves from entering pens; and proper husbandry methods, such as penning cows at night and using electric fencing.

Bird points out that the funding is already there. It just needs to be put to use. To soften the blow to ranchers, wildlife managers already pay them when cattle are predated on by wolves.

After passing through the House, the bill went to the Senate, where it was assigned to the Senate Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, chairs that committee. A spokesperson for her office, Kim Quintero, said, “Sen. Kerr has not studied the bill just yet, and therefore, she is not ready to provide a comment on the subject.”

But the bill needs to move by the end of March if it’s to become law this year. March 25 is the deadline for bills to pass through the committee and still make it to the governor's desk.

Bird, who has worked on collaborative coexistence measures for decades, notes an additional element to the possible damage this bill could have on continued conservation efforts.

"Another important point is that in places where this type of confusion exists, it results in more mortality, and a slowing down, if not inhibiting of recovery of an endangered animal like the Mexican gray wolf," Bird says. "So, in other words, (Cook) may think he's doing something good for his constituents, but in the end, this is going to actually do something bad for the constituents. It's going to slow down the recovery of the species that everybody wants to have taken off the endangered species list."

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Environmental coverage on and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.